IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS: The Death and Life of a Parish Priest. By Paul Wilkes. Random House. 256 pages. $19.95.
WHEN WAS the last time anyone thought of the parish priest as a hero? With all of the negative news about priests surfacing in recent months, this book by Paul Wilkes stands as a "point of light" in what seems a gloomy night for the priesthood.
"In Mysterious Ways" is the story of a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, the Rev. Joe Greer. Inspired by the French classic, "Diary of a Country Priest," the author wanted to write about a modern priest, a sort of "diary of a city priest." Greer is a combination of old-time spirituality and modern community involvement, a man who confesses his violations of the vow of celibacy but who struggles mightily to be a good priest, a man who denies expression of his feelings but who is tender toward others.
Father Greer, 55, embodies all the stresses and strains that go with being a priest in 20th-century America. Living proof of the priestly adage that "the reward of good work is getting more work to do," Greer's reward for bringing failing parishes back to life is to be sent to another failing city parish, St. Patrick's in Natick, Mass. In a parish that once had five priests, Greer works with one or two. Church and school buildings are in dire need of repair. Mass attendance is down, and the spirits of the parish are sagging.
Greer sets out to bring the parish back to life, only to learn of the return of his bone marrow cancer. The death and resurrection of a parish now parallel the death and resurrection of a priest.
So this is two stories in one. The first is about the struggle of modern priests to serve their parishes under difficult conditions. Readers who have wondered what a priest "does the rest of the week" will find the book fascinating. The second story is of a journey of faith by a man confronting his own death. This story will prove inspirational to all readers. It will help many people who wrestle with any illness to know that a person of faith can still experience moments of despair, doubt, loneliness and desperation.
Greer is no cold statue of a saint. He is a flesh and blood individual who lives the life of a priest with conviction, courage and fidelity. His weaknesses are weaknesses of the flesh, but his triumphs are triumphs of the spirit. He is a saint under stress in a world with plenty of stresses.
This book is must reading for anyone considering becoming a priest. It captures the pettiness and gossip and humor of priestly conversation, as well as the heroism of priestly life. This book is suggested reading for anyone interested in knowing more about the life of a priest. For one group in particular, the Catholic hierarchy, "Mysterious Ways" is recommended reading, for in refusing even to consider changing the law of celibacy, Catholic Church leadership is dooming countless other priests to preventable stresses and preventable illnesses. Greer is a saint because he is essentially a martyr. The irony is that the persecution is not inflicted from the outside by a godless dictator, but from the inside by his own church.
Joseph F. Breighner is a priest of the Baltimore Archdiocese.